Chargers' Sproles a headache for defenders
Tackling running back Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 264 pounds, may be like knocking down a run-away piano.
But Steelers safety Ryan Clark would opt to stop Jacobs rather than Chargers' running back Darren Sproles, the smallest man in the NFL at 5-6 and 185 pounds.
Sproles can embarrass would-be tacklers.
"With guys like Sproles, you never know," Clark said. "One minute they're right in front of you, and then they're three, four yards away with one cut. It is extremely hard to play against those guys."
The Steelers and Chargers will both rely on average-sized men when they clash tonight at Heinz Field.
For the Steelers, rookie return specialist Stefan Logan, who is the same height as Sproles, has added a new dimension for the defending Super Bowl champions. He has just missed touchdowns with kickoff returns of 59 and 39 yards so far this season.
Sproles and Logan are among the handful of shorter players who are succeeding at football's highest level. Their speed and elusiveness give defenders fits. Then there is the height factor.
Clark, who is 5-11, said he has trouble getting low enough to tackle players such as Sproles and Logan. Imagine how difficult it can be for Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, who stands 6-5.
"I've gotten several times where I've hit Sproles and Stefan, and it knocks the wind out of you," Keisel said. "You're basically just running up there and hitting them with your stomach. It definitely brings a different element to the game. Those little guys are hard to grab onto — like chasing a rabbit around. It's hard."
Paving the way
Shorter players have always found a spot on NFL rosters. One of the best played for the Baltimore Colts in the 1950s - and served as a pioneer of sorts for pint-sized backs.
Running back Buddy Young stood just 5-4 and and weighed around 170 pounds, but his world-class speed and quick cuts often left opponents grasping for air. Young was so fast that he once defeated the Colts' mascot — a horse — in a 100-yard dash before an exhibition game at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.
The player also known as the "Bronze Bullet" was anything but a sideshow.
Young, who made the Pro Bowl in 1954, had five seasons where he piled up more than 1,000 all-purpose yards.
"You couldn't hardly tackle the guy," recalled Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, an All-Pro defensive back for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s.
Others followed in Young's footsteps.
The players ranked first and third, respectively, on the NFL's all-time rushing list are Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. Smith is 5-9 and Sanders is an inch shorter. In 1969, the Kansas City Chiefs' running back rotation of Mike Garrett, Robert Holmes and Warren McVea combined for more than 1,800 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in a 14-game season.
All three backs were listed at 5-9.
Adding to the challenges of playing against short running backs: defenders have to find them behind hulking offensive linemen.
"Defenders do have trouble locating guys that aren't as big," said Chargers coach Norv Turner, who was the offensive coordinator on the Dallas Cowboys teams that Smith helped lead to three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s. "When we had Emmitt behind that big offensive line, they used to talk about how hard, on certain plays, it was to find him."
The same is true of Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, who is sixth in the NFL in rushing this season with 282 yards.
Jones-Drew is just 5-7, which may explain why he lasted until the late in the second round in the 2006 NFL draft. But the 208-pounder is built like a fire hydrant, and he has such a knack for bouncing off tacklers that Jones-Drew's nickname is "Pinball."
"I kind of made a mistake with Maurice Jones-Drew when he came out (for the draft) because I didn't understand his body type," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who specializes in the draft. "A 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7 guy that looks like Maurice Jones-Drew is a lot different than Sproles or some of these other guys."
Sproles: a big play waiting to happen
Sproles is more like former New York Giant running back David Meggett, a jack-of-all-trades player and favorite of coach Bill Parcells in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Sproles may not be able to absorb the pounding a feature back endures over the course of a season. But his big-play capability is undeniable.
In a 31-26 loss to Baltimore two weeks ago, Sproles scored an 81-yard touchdown on a catch and run. He also set up a field goal with a 53-yard kickoff return.
"I thought he was one of the best football players on the field," Mayock said.
Sproles has been so effective as a situational back and substitute for starter LaDainian Tomlinson — who has missed two games because of an ankle injury — that it may change how teams evaluate shorter players.
"When you see the Sproleses and what they can do, you see some of those guys with incredible explosion and quickness," Mayock said. "The fact the Sproles has made it helps. The fact that more teams are spreading the field horizontally helps because you're looking for guys who can make plays. It's all about speed."
The Chargers are so adept at maximizing Sproles' speed that Logan's most important contribution to tonight's game may have been in practice, where he spent the week mimicking Sproles.
For Logan, it was something of an honor as he has followed Sproles, a record-setting star at Kansas State, to the NFL.
"I use my size to my advantage to make people miss and show people that I'm tough," Logan said.
"You put Stef in the game, and, immediately, it's an impact," Clark said. "You put Darren Sproles in the game, and it's an immediate impact so much so that Tomlinson's workload has decreased, and he was once considered the best running back in the NFL. That's just a testament to how dangerous (Sproles) is."
Short only in stature
Lack of size did not stop the following 10 players from succeeding in the NFL. Here they are listed by, of course, height.
· Buddy Young, Yanks/Texans/Colts RB First Colt to have his number retired; made the Pro Bowl in 1954 and served as a pioneer for smaller backs.
· Mack Herron, Patriots/Falcons, RB Had 1,298 combined rushing and receiving yards in 1974 and scored 12 touchdowns; excelled in CFL before moving onto the NFL.
· Lionel "Little Train" James, Chargers In 1985, set NFL record for single-season all-purpose yards (2,535), including 86 catches for 1,027.
· Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars, RB Scored 14 touchdowns last season despite sharing time with Fred Taylor.
· Eddie LeBaron, Redskins/Cowboys, QB/P Four-time Pro Bowler threw for more than 13,000 yards; Korean War veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
· Jermaine Lewis, Ravens, WR/RS Two-time Pro Bowler had an 84-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XXXV and finished career with 23 touchdowns.
· Dave Meggett, Giants/Patriots/Jets, RB/RS Do-it-all player accumulated more than 9,000 return yards during his career and had 129 all-purpose yards in Super Bowl XXV.
· Sam Mills, Saints/Panthers, LB Five-time Pro bowler died in 2005 after a battle with cancer; a statue of Mills stands outside of Carolina's Bank of America Stadium.
· Barry Sanders, Lions, RB Pro Football Hall of Famer might have held the NFL's career rushing record had he not abruptly retired in 1999.
· Bob Sanders, Colts, S Erie native won NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2007 and is a two-time All-Pro selection.